Banning Sugared Drinks in Schools Doesn’t Lower Student Consumption

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Banning sugared beverages from schools will limit children’s access to calorie-laden sodas and sports drinks but will do little to lower their overall intake of the drinks, according to new research.

Adolescents — no surprise — are adept at finding ways to get the things they can’t have, so state policies banning all sugar-sweetened drinks from public schools and providing only water, milk or 100% fruit juices hasn’t had the intended effect of steering kids away from drinking sugared drinks: the average teen consumes about 300 calories per day — that’s nearly 15% of his daily calories — in sweetened beverages, and the food and beverage industry is only too happy to feed this need.

Researchers tracking 6,900 fifth-graders from public schools in 40 states through the eighth grade found that 85% of eighth graders reported drinking a sugared beverage at least once a week (about 30% said they drank them every day), regardless of whether their schools banned them or not.

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The strict policies weren’t a total wash, however: nearly 2% fewer students reported downing sweetened sodas or sports drinks between the fifth and eighth grades if their schools banned these drinks over that time, compared to schools with less restrictions.

Experts such as Daniel Taber, the study’s lead author, are concerned about overconsumption of sugar-sweetened beverages because it can lead to obesity and metabolic disorders such as diabetes and heart disease.

“The policies work in the sense that the comprehensive policies that ban all sugar-sweetened beverages are supposed to reduce access to the drinks in schools, and that’s exactly what they did do,” says Taber, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Illinois’ Institute for Health Research and Policy. “We were hoping the policies would lead to lower consumption but we didn’t find any evidence of that.”

The research, published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, highlights the fact that changing teen beverage preferences will take a lot more than simply limiting  their availability in schools. “Schools are absolutely an important piece of the puzzle, but not the only piece, and that’s the main message of this study,” says Jamie Chriqui, one of the authors at the Institute. “If we want to reduce middle schoolers’ consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, we can’t rely on schools alone to address that problem.”

Other strategies include providing healthier alternatives, such as water, low-fat milk and 100% fruit juices and limiting student access to fast-food restaurants, malls and convenience stores where they can easily fill up on the less nutritious drinks that are banned at school.

MORE: Half of Americans Drink Sugary Beverages Daily

Cutting consumption may also require more rigorous enforcement of no-sugary-drinks policies in schools themselves. In the study, about 20% of students said they purchased sodas or sports drinks even at schools where only water, milk and 100% fruit juices were supposed to be available for sale. Some of that discrepancy could be due to the students’ misunderstanding of what constituted a sugared beverage – some may have considered 100% fruit juices to be a sugar-sweetened beverage, for example — but the results are still worrying.

“There is a tremendous amount of variation in how schools are defining sugar-sweetened beverages, in where they are selling them, and also the time of day [the drinks are sold], and to which grade levels,” says Chriqui. Students have many ways of accessing sugared drinks outside of the school lunch program, including vending machines, school stores and cafeteria a la carte offerings that students pay for themselves rather than with lunch vouchers. Depending on how administrators interpret state policies on restricting access to these drinks in middle school, students may not have the option of getting sodas, for example, with their state-sponsored lunch but may be able to purchase them from a cashier or at a vending machine.

That’s why any program to limit students’ consumption of sweetened beverages will have to take a holistic approach, involving not just school officials but other members of the community where children live and play—from fast-food vendors to parents to those running after-school programs. Coordinating such an effort will be a challenge; the average teen consumes about 300 calories per day — that’s nearly 15% of his daily calories — in sweetened beverages, and the food and beverage industry is only too happy to feed this need. Plus, many schools rely on the revenue provided by vending machines that sell sugar-sweetened drinks, so some administrators may not be so eager to remove them.

Still, Taber notes that it’s not impossible to make the drastic changes that might be needed. Parents and other adults who work with students can serve as role models by limiting their consumption of sodas and energy drinks, especially in front of children, and consistent messages from educators and the government about healthier drinks such as water, milk and 100% fruit juice should also help. “Efforts to reduce tobacco use in children had the same struggles about regulating where tobacco could be marketed and sold,” he says. “We were successful in that arena, so just because there are challenges doesn’t mean we can’t utilize the same strategies.”